In the annals of music history, Sweetheart of the Rodeo was a major game-changer. Released on Aug. 30, 1968, The Byrds’ sixth studio effort started out as founding members Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman working on a musical history of 20th century American popular music, splitting time between studios in Nashville and Los Angeles. With the addition of Gram Parsons, who shared a love of country music with Hillman, the outing wound up morphing into the first full-length country music album. With this year marking its 50th anniversary, McGuinn reached out to old friend Hillman with the idea of hitting the road with Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives to pay homage to this landmark recording that opened the floodgates for the likes of Poco, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Eagles and much of the Southern California soft rock scene that came out of Laurel Canyon in the early 1970s.
While the anniversary wasn’t really on Hillman’s radar, he’s been thoroughly enjoying the chance to not only reunite with his old band mate, but share the stage with Stuart and his crew.
“We’ve got a great band first of all—Marty and His Superlatives. And working with Roger is wonderful. Roger and I get along great. We haven’t worked together for 25 years and it’s like no time has passed. He’s a joy to work with. I’m having more fun than I’ve had in years, and I mean that,” Hillman said. “I’m having a blast out there every night. It’s great music. I don’t know—Marty’s band is pretty great and pretty hard to beat. It’s a perfect fit. He gets the music, he’s a great guy and all the guys in the band are wonderful. It’s truly a lot of fun.”
Recorded at a time when McGuinn and Hillman were trying to rebuild The Byrds after showing David Crosby and Michael Clarke the door, Sweetheart was not the band’s first foray into country music. Given the fact that Hillman’s roots lay in bluegrass dating back to his teen years and how the other Byrds members came out of the folk scene, country music wasn’t much of a leap. And while Parsons had a major role in helping prod McGuinn and Hillman towards recording in Nashville, Hillman is adamant about reinforcing the fact that The Byrds had already dabbled in the genre.
“[The common misconception is that] all of sudden Gram came along and off we went to Nashville. In some ways, that’s true. Gram loved country music and I had an immediate ally, having come from straight bluegrass myself. Roger and I were looking to do something different at the time. And rebuilding the band. So it was a natural progression to go out to Nashville. But my point is that we were already exploring those avenues two or three albums before Sweetheart,” he explained.
“I’m going to say something you might think is crazy. I think ‘Time Between’ ranks as one of the first country-rock songs, in that it was backbeat with electric, it was country, it had a bluegrass groove and Clarence [White] was on it. Poco came along right when The Flying Burrito Brothers came along as well as Dillard and Clark. That all came after Sweetheart, which opened the floodgates for West Coast, country-type sounds. When we do, ‘Wasn’t Born to Follow,’ which was a Gerry Goffin-Carole King song, they had all of a sudden written it like it was a West Coast country song. Peter Fonda liked the song and wanted The Byrds to record that for Easy Rider. So that’s when things were happening, way before Poco,” he added. “All of a sudden, there was this big wave of country-type songs coming out of the Sweetheart project that opened the gates. So it wasn’t a stretch, and it never had been. Really, everyone in The Byrds came out of folk music. We were never a garage rock band. We learned how to do that. End of story.”
For Hillman and the rest of The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo was a complete labor of love. The recording sessions went well, between working with ace sidemen like stand-up bass player Junior Huskey, pedal steel player Lloyd Green and guitarist John Hartford on Music Row, and then returning to California to wrap things up with pedal steel player JayDee Maness and future Byrd Clarence White. And while anecdotes abound of there being a negative reaction to The Byrds’ foray into country music by Music Row industry types, for Hillman, part of the reaction was self-inflicted, particularly after The Byrds appeared on the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium.
“We had a good time doing this [record], but we didn’t think it was going to be a monster album;. We didn’t think anything. You just go do a record and put it out. The record gained all the accolades a couple of years later,” he said. “The Grand Ole Opry was fine and they were very polite to us. In hindsight, when Gram opted to do another song, knowing they wanted ‘Sing Me Back Home,’ we thought we were being hip and cool at the time. But we weren’t. We were being rude and disrespectful to the Opry. And I say it loud and clear. I wished that had never happened. We do ‘Sing Me Back Home’ during the show and I tell the story. Like I say, in hindsight, that was totally disrespectful. The Opry [folks] were very friendly and when we pulled that stunt, they weren’t so friendly. And I don’t blame them. But it’s all history.”
Fans coming out to see Sweetheart of the Rodeo at 50 will get to hear two sets, one setting the table for the country-rock direction The Byrds were going in, and the second presenting the album in its entirety. Throughout it all, Hillman and McGuinn pay homage to their old friend Parsons and bask in the camaraderie they share with Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives.
“Folks are going to like it. I could sell you all day long, But everyone will see this show and like it and you know why? Because we like it,” Hillman said with a laugh. “We’re having so much fun and it’s infectious. If we’re having a good time up there, the audience is going to have a good time. And they always do.”
Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn will be appearing with Sweetheart of the Rodeo at 50 on September 24 at Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St., NYC. For more information, visit www.the-townhall-nyc.org or call 212-307-4100. Click here to read about Chris Hillman’s favorite country and bluegrass music musicians.